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Power Tripping

 

The Incredibles

Brad Bird, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: November 9, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Given the increasingly high profile of four-color superheroes in the movies these days, it was only a matter of time before the progressive animation studio Pixar took a crack at the genre. And, not altogether surprisingly, the end result is a bit darker than its subject matter and visuals might first suggest. (This is the same company, mind you, that brought us Finding Nemo, a charming little tale about a father frantically trying to rescue his captured son.)

What is surprising about The Incredibles is its almost Ayn Rand-ian thematic conceit: that we, as a society, are stifling the special individuals in our midst.

Here's the setup: Muscle-bound superhero Mr. Incredible (voiced with an ingratiating amount of blue-collar dissatisfaction by Craig T. Nelson) is sued early on for saving the life of a man trying to commit suicide, as well as a train full of passengers who suffer some physical ailments as a result of his heroism. Lawsuits against super-powered beings proliferate like WMDs, and popular sentiment turns against the do-gooders; soon, they're forced to relocate, with the government's help, in a protection program -- forced to hide their identities and abilities from their suspicious, ungrateful neighbors.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible is now one Bob Parr (par, get it?), a put-upon flunky at an insurance company, who longs for the days when he was allowed to use his abilities to help others. Bob is given to sneaking out of the house to commit anonymous good deeds with his best friend Lucius, the former superhero Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Meanwhile, his wife Helen, formerly the rubber-limbed Elastigirl (an impressively expressive Holly Hunter), holds down the home front, raising the couple's super-powered children -- sullen, invisible Violet (Sarah Vowell), irrepressible speedster Dash (Spencer Fox) and seemingly normal baby Jack-Jack. Helen plays the pragmatic realist to Bob's increasingly distanced, defeated dreamer, and Bob's gradual withdrawal from the mundane realities of family life threatens to put a strain on their marriage.

Not a bad premise for a film, especially one directed by Brad Bird, who achieved a laudable balance of poignancy and fantasy with The Iron Giant. And The Incredibles certainly has its share of delights: its savvy homage to the elaborate fortress-hideouts of vintage James Bond villains; its eye-popping visuals (especially the level of technological "realism" in dealing with the human characters); its intelligence (the super powers of each Parr correspond to their place in the family/social dynamic -- strong-man figure for dad, hyperactive super-speed for the young boy, invisibility for the wallflower teen); and its sense of humor.

But those delights are undermined somewhat by its surprisingly grim thematic tone. The film's overall message isn't an easily digestible credo about helping one's fellow man, like Spider-Man's famous "With great power comes great responsibility." Instead, it's a vague, simmering-to-a-boil hostility toward political correctness (as when Bob rails against the idea of attending Dash's "graduation ceremony" from the fourth to the fifth grade) and a society where when everyone is made super, as the film's antagonist Syndrome (Jason Lee) points out, "no one will be." Fair enough, but Bird paints that target onto the 9-to-5 world -- specifically the very same bland suburban landscapes whose denizens have made Pixar's films into blockbusters.

This is a prime example of biting the hand that feeds you, and it rings especially false given Pixar's previous output. When Bob loudly complains that "They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity!," it's impossible not to note that the grievance comes from the studio that has given us, what exactly? The Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. Well-made, remarkably constructed films, no doubt about it. But world-changing, preconception-shattering pieces of cinematic greatness for the ages, they're not. (Note to Pixar: if you want to build some credibility in the opposing-mediocrity department, try not to lead into your movie with a painfully trite and saccharine short like the embarrassingly square "Boundin'," the generic ode to tenacity that opens The Incredibles. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.)

By the time Bird wraps up his film with the same baseline, heartwarming ending you come to expect, The Incredibles proves little more than an animated Spy Kids with super-powers. Entertaining, yes. Fun, certainly. But a sturdy foundation from which to launch a tirade against the same status quo it does so little to buck? Not hardly.

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